Port of Hampton Roads Getting Wider, Deeper for "Ultra-Large" Ships

Big things are on the horizon for the Norfolk area; specifically, deeper waters and more “ultra-large” commercial shipping vessels.

Virginia’s budget, recently signed by the governor, includes $350 million for the dredging and widening of Norfolk-area channels to make room for two-way traffic of some of the biggest commercial vessels on the water.

The Norfolk Harbor and Channels Federal Navigation project will be led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) with local leadership from the Port of Virginia/Virginia Port Authority.

The project includes increasing the depth of the Norfolk Harbor and Newport News Channels from 50 to 55 feet as well as deepening and widening other shipping channels nearby.

A slide of the proposed channel depths. Photo: Virginia Port Authority

Joe Harris, with the Virginia Port Authority, says $20 million will be used for engineering and design work, and the dredging will cost $330 million. The first portion of the project should take up to two years, and the dredging is slated to be finished by 2024.

Harris says that although the number of commercial container ships in the area is down, the number of larger vessels is up. Two shipping terminals in the area, Norfolk International Terminal (NIT) and the Virginia International Gateway (VIG), are undergoing a $700 million infrastructure expansion project to accommodate the big ships. There are “fewer vessels carrying more volume, but as we expand,” he explains, “the ships are going to get bigger and you’re going to see what we’re calling the ultra-large container ships…workhorse vessels that are going to require two-way traffic.”

When big container ships need to make their way in or out of the port, the Coast Guard temporarily closes commercial channels. Harris says the dredging will make sure the waterways can handle the largest fully-laden ships, “but we also want to widen the channel to make for safe passage of two-way vessel traffic.”  

Aside from more “ultra-large” vessels coming and going, what does the project mean for the Commonwealth? “It’s a project that really expands the port of Virginia and positions it to really drive economic investment throughout the state,” Harris says.

The project will next head to the highest levels within the USACE to be reviewed. 

In the end, if the project accomplishes what it hopes to, Harris says Virginians will be able to lay claim to the “most modern and the deepest port complex on the East Coast.” And while it won’t be the biggest, since New York and New Jersey see the most volume, “Virginia will be positioned to handle the biggest ships afloat right now,” says Harris.

 The Virginia International Gateway. Photo: Port of Virginia
The Virginia International Gateway. Photo: Port of Virginia

-Laura Boycourt